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Wilderness - Vessel States

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Artist: Wilderness

Album: Vessel States

Label: Jagjaguwar

Review date: Apr. 17, 2006

Baltimore’s Wilderness are one the few bands today that manage to transcend the sum of their influences to create something genuinely new and fresh. Their slyly original sound is at once cryptic and deceptively simple, referencing myriad sources, yet defying easy categorization. Retro without the scent of necrophilia, Wilderness approaches their influences from oblique angles, splicing post-rock precision with emo drama, and channeling the icy post-punk desolation of bands like Comsat Angels, Felt and In Camera. Imagine Jeremy Enigk caterwauling over the motorik textures of Pell Mell or Scenic: in lesser hands, such multi-tasking could come off as overstuffed and academic, but Wilderness make it all sound effortlessly integrated and coolly iconoclastic.

An understated tour de force, the quartet’s sophomore effort Vessel States spins a web of sparely gorgeous atmospherics, haunting melodies and magisterial tempos. Filled with an ineffable spiritual longing and a fractured sense of alienation, the album packs an emotional punch and a dark intelligence that sneaks up on you after repeated listens.

The most distinctive facet of their hard to place sound remains James Johnson’s declamatory singing style. Throwing his voice into the void like a banshee with a philosophy degree, Johnson delivers lines like ”human contact, over our heads / make sense out of my opinion” like lost koans into canyons of reverb. With a uniquely hoarse bellow that recalls John Lydon and Mark E. Smith, Johnson also echoes the yearning vulnerability of Robert Smith with a smidge of David Byrne’s eccentricity. Pretty much a textbook definition of ‘acquired taste,’ Johnson’s orations work surprisingly well against his band’s tightly-wound yet expansive soundscapes. Like a town crier caught in a slow motion dust storm of chiming guitar lines and distant drones, Johnson anchors these tracks with his soulful idiosyncrasies.

Trafficking in an earnest and meditative brand of art rock, Wilderness at times seem focused to the point of monotony, but they always manage to throw in an ear-catching detail, like the plaintive accordion that floats over “Gravity Bent Light” like Nico’s ghost. In some ways, Wilderness captures more the naïve and forward-thinking spirit of the post-punk era than the actual sound, hearkening back to a time when anything seemed possible in rock music, and futurism wasn’t just an ironic pose.

By Lawrence Lui

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